If I had a million dollars . . .

Come on, now. Admit it. We’ve all thought about what we’d do if we had a spare million or so. I’d be willing to bet some of us gave it some thought recently when the MonsterMillions or whatever it was paid out obscene amounts of money to a few lucky winners.

Central Business Improvement District, Knoxville, Spring 2012

I think about such things, though I’m one of those who can’t win because I don’t play. I’m reconciled to the fact that I’ll never have a major windfall. But what if I did – or you did? What if someone gave you a half million dollars and said they’d give you the same amount next year. You are in complete charge of the money, but there is one little catch: you have to spend it in the best way you can determine to help make downtown Knoxville a better place for residents, businesses and visitors.

Ideas immediately springing to mind? How much will you spend on buildings? How much will you spend on events to bring people into the city? Will you have a staff to encourage businesses to locate in Knoxville? Will you print brochures, buy street lights, fix sidewalks, remove graffiti? Would you spend it the same way over the years or change as the city changes? Watch out, you may burn through a half million dollars before you know it.

I’ve come to realize this is a pretty difficult task made more difficult by several factors I hadn’t anticipated. You see, it turns out this is exactly the situation in which the Central Business Improvement District finds itself. It started in 1992, though with fewer funds, charted a course of using the money to promote downtown and now finds itself in a very different city – to some degree of its making. Who would argue that the center city hasn’t made massive strides since 1992? No one who walked the streets during that era.

CBID Board, Knoxville, Spring 2012

After the CBID recently granted $125,000 to improve the facade at 1 Market Square a debate erupted over issues related to the expenditure of their money. What percentage of the total budget should go to improving facades downtown? Staffing currently uses $175,000 of the money. At a recent workshop proposals were made for $100,000 of the operating budget going forward to be spent on events. Another 100,000 was suggested to be designated for the facade grants with a limit of $25,000 for a single grant. That means there would be no more large grants like the ones given to 1 Market Square and the Arnstein Building. It would also leave only $125,000 for large projects.

As difficult as it is to determine the right mix of allocations for the budget, the job is complicated by competing interests and relationships. Each constituency group would likely have a different answer to the question. A resident and a business owner might share some common goals, but diverge on particular uses of this money. A developer wants to make their projects as lucrative as possible and grants help, but which developer and which project deserves the help at a particular time? What basis helps you determine who gets the grant money? Does it matter if they have a track record? Does it matter if they are a new, struggling developer versus an established, wealthy developer who may not really need the money? What if the project is likely to bring in a business that is redundant downtown – or what if it is exceptionally cool  – does that matter?

The large projects present another set of questions. What is a large project worthy of receiving $125,000 or some large portion of it? One item under discussion is a parking garage. What if someone wanted to resuscitate the J.C. Penny building which is a prominent eyesore in our most developed portion of downtown? What about the McClung Warehouses? Why wouldn’t a vision like Marble Alley be worthy of a large grant. I also wonder if the board should give themselves some flexibility to decide that, in a given budget year, events and facades would be cut in favor of a large opportunity or significant need.

List of Services engendered debate

Complicating matters more are the personal relationships in a town this size. What if you are on the board and your friend wants a grant? What if the person asking for money may be your partner in a future project? What if they are a competitor? What if they once rejected a grant for your company when they were on the board? What if their company is a client of your company? Does any of this effect your decision making?

This is our situation at this time. Developers rotate through the board – and maybe that’s a good thing because they understand what it takes to make a project happen – but that leads to complicated relationships. Residents on the board know many of the developers, as well. Often board members are residents as well as developers or friends of those asking for money. One board member is a resident and a city commissioner. How does he vote when the city wants the board to invest in a project? Do other loyalties influence votes? I think it would be very difficult in this context to remain completely objective.

People stood as the intensity increased during the workshop

So, at the recent workshop, new applications for grants were frozen for three months, which led to one local developer storming out of the meeting. During the hiatus, deliberation will continue regarding allocation of resources. It’s great theater on one level, but it is also very important. Currently, downtown Knoxville enjoys tremendous, undeniable momentum. The choices this small group of people make will have a large impact on whether that momentum continues or stalls.

I’d encourage you to attend as many meetings as possible and at least be aware of the conversations, if not join the dialog. You’ll find a list of upcoming meetings here. I’ll see you at the evening meetings as I’m unable to attend the meetings in the middle of the day. In the meantime, consider how would you spend a half million dollars a year. It’s complicated, isn’t it?